Hidden Histories

Discover hidden histories of women from the City.

In 2019, the City of London Corporation commissioned research to explore how women from the City’s past are recognised and documented across its archives and collections, as well as its streetscape. The aim was to shine a light on how we have viewed and commemorated the past, while unearthing the stories of individuals and groups who made a positive impact to London, the UK or the wider world.

These hidden histories offer an opportunity to tell a more vivid and balanced story of the City, a place which was built on the achievements and resilience of women whose names are often overlooked or overshadowed by their male counterparts. They also enable us to celebrate a number of pioneering figures who transformed industries and advocated for the rights of their communities. 

We invite you to read the research, learn more about the City’s past and play your part in Celebrating City Women.

Read more about the research project

a print of a Boxing ring

Elizabeth Stokes

Pugilist and prize-fighter.

 

Probably a Londoner by birth; no early details of her life are known, but she was billed ‘of the famous City of London’ and termed the ‘City Championess (Weekly Journal, 1 Oct 1726). 

A notable early leader in female stage combat for financial gain, she was one of the rare examples of a fighter of either sex who during the first half of the eighteenth century featured in confrontations using weapons (such as the back-sword and quarterstaff) as well as fists. 

Stokes may well have been the Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell who fought a lengthy contest with Hannah Hyfield of Newgate Market in June 1722 in which both protagonists held a half-crown in each hand, the loser being the first to drop her money. 

 In the summer of 1723 the City Championess was advertised to meet, in boxing battles, the similarly named Joanna Heyfield of Newgate Market (possibly the same person) on two occasions (the first was prevented by inclement weather and the second she won), and also a Billingsgate fish-woman, Martha Jones. She was, commented the London Journal soon afterwards  and had gained the admiration of the mob attracted to such entertainments.

Image: © London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

an image of an Invitation to Pan-African Conference

ALICE KINLOCH

Equal rights campaigner and one of the founders of the African Association.

 

Alice Kinloch was from Natal, South Africa, and was married to a Scottish engineer.

She often shared public forums with Sylvester Williams, speaking about the racism that black people faced in Africa, and was one of London’s leading advocates for the rights of Africans across the world.

She was one of the founders of The African Association, which convened the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. 

Little else is known about her life. However there is evidence to say that she returned to Africa in 1898.

an imge of Rosamond Davenport Hill

Rosamond Davenport Hill

Social reformer and educational administrator.

 

Born in Chelsea on 4 August 1825, the eldest of the three daughters of Matthew Davenport Hill and Margaret Bucknall. 

The most public period of Rosamond’s life began in 1879. The Education Act of 1870 had created a network of locally elected school boards, with the significant innovation of women being able to serve on them. 

When Rosamond Davenport Hill was elected in December 1879 as a Progressive member of the London school board for the City of London she became one of a handful of pioneer women school board members. She served until 1897. 

As a school board member Rosamond was noted for her activities in relation to industrial schools and also for her advocacy of the introduction of what would become known as domestic science courses for girls.

an image of Paint and paintbrush

Catherine de Costa

Miniature Painter.
'The earliest known English-born Jewish artist'.

Catherine de Costa [née Mendes] (1679–1756) Miniature painter.

 Born in London in 1679.

Catherine learned miniature painting from Bernard Lens the younger (1682–1740) and was one of the earliest artists to paint in watercolours on ivory. 

Most of her known paintings are miniatures of her family and friends. She died on 11 December 1756 in London and was buried in the Portuguese Jews, new cemetery, Mile End. 

She bequeathed her miniatures to her son, Abraham, for life, to be divided after his death between the families of her four daughters. Some of these are in the Amsterdam Jewish Historical Museum.

Katherine Aragon

Katherine of Aragon

Commissioned the 'Education of a Christian Woman'

Katherine was Queen of England from June 1509 until May 1533 and owner of Baynard’s Castle in the City.

The Education of a Christian Woman by Juan Luis Vives was controversial at its release for promoting the right for women to have an education. The publication was commissioned by and dedicated to Katherine in 1523. 

Even her political enemy Thomas Cromwell, said “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” 

She successfully appealed for the lives of the rebels involved in the Evil May Day, in order to protect the welfare of their families. Catherine also achieved widespread popularity and appreciation by commencing an extensive programme for the relief of the poor. 

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

Charlotte Forman

Charlotte Forman

Journalist and translator

Journalist and translator, writing under the pseudonym ‘Probus’, buried at St Bride’s Fleet Street. 

She was born on 23 October 1715, perhaps in England, one of five children of Charles Forman, an Irish Jacobite and pamphleteer, and his wife, Mary. 

Though she was virtually unknown in her lifetime, her career as a newspaper journalist has significance ‘because of the light it sheds on the history of journalism and because she was one of the few women of the period who wrote successfully about subjects conventionally considered masculine. 

She is not known to have published anything under her own name and she almost certainly published some works anonymously that cannot now be attributed to her.’ Forman was the author of a long series of topical political essays that first appeared in the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser between 1756 and 1760.

Despite the popularity of her articles, and her work as a translator (also for newspapers), she was often afflicted by desperate poverty and spent some time in the Marshalsea prison as a debtor. She died on 23 December 1787.

an image of a Morse code machine

Violette Szabo

WWII Agent

A Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent shot by Nazi officers in 1945, worked as a telegraphist at the Central Telegraph Office between November 1940 and February 1941 before joining the SOE.

a image of books

Elizabeth Calvert

Radical Bookseller/Quaker/Activist

The Calverts’ shop at the Black Spread Eagle at the west end of St Paul’s Churchyard was a major source of radical and Quaker publications during the periods of the civil war and Commonwealth. 

After the Restoration Elizabeth Calvert carried on the trade in republican, nonconformist and oppositional literature, taking a central role in arranging the printing and distribution of radical pamphlets. 

Despite repeated imprisonments, deaths, consequent debts, and the destruction of her shop in the Great Fire of 1666, Calvert persisted in her trade, continuing to publish both openly and surreptitiously.

In February 1674 she bound the last of her four apprentices, on 19 October she made her will, and she died probably in early 1675, her will being proved on 5 February 1675.

the symbol for nursing

Ethel Bedford Fenwick

Founder of the International Council of Nurses

She was born Ethel Gordon Manson on 26 January 1857 at Spynie House near Elgin, Moray.

From an early age Manson showed a strong will and sense of purpose and decided that she would be a nurse.

She started her training at the age of 21 at the Children’s Hospital, Nottingham, and went on for a further year at the Royal Infirmary, Manchester.

She was then offered the position of sister at the London Hospital. She proved herself to be a capable manager and two years later, at the age of 23, was appointed matron of St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

a newspaper cutting showing Violet Piercy

Violet Piercy

Marathon Runner

Frequently in the public eye between 1926 and 1938 as the first British female marathon runner, her achievements have been cited in numerous works of record, but her identity has never been definitively established. 

All the available evidence, however, indicates a strong probability that she was Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy, who was born at 15 Clarendon Road, Croydon, Surrey, on 24 December 1889. 

On 30 March 1935 she performed a stunt that was reported internationally, running five and a quarter miles from the Whittington Stone at Highgate to the Monument in the City and up the 311 steps in 43 minutes 2 seconds.

‘I did it to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s,’ she told the South London Press (2 April 1935).

an image of Hester Bateman Hallmark

Hester Bateman

Pioneering silversmith and businesswoman

Baptised on 7 October 1708 at St Michael-le-Querne, Paternoster Row. 

She was living in the parish of St Botolph Aldersgate at the time of her marriage on 20 May 1732 to John Bateman (1704–60), wiredrawer and gold chain maker, of St Bartholomew the Less. It is reasonable to assume that Hester Bateman may have been involved with the business for some time before her husband died of consumption in 1760.

In his will Bateman left his tools to his wife, which suggests that he expected her to continue the business. 

Although by then in her early fifties Hester Bateman began building on the established business with the help of her workmen and apprentices.

She gradually expanded the range and quantity of goods to supply a largely middle-class market using the latest, most cost-efficient manufacturing processes. The firm’s deliberate use of new ideas and technology allowed it to compete with the cheap silver and Sheffield plate from Birmingham and Sheffield. 

Hester Bateman must be credited with the energy and foresight to pursue this strategy which enabled her to turn a small family business into one of the most successful medium-sized manufactories of its day. 

an image of Lombard Street sign

Ann Alexander

Banker and bill broker

Banker and bill broker. 

While working in the City in a Quaker milliner’s establishment, she met William Alexander, a bank clerk, and they were married in 1801 (in Doncaster).

In 1810 William started a business as a bill broker, founding the firm of Alexander & Co, with premises at 33 Lombard Street. He died in 1819, following a fall from a coach. 

Ann took over as principal of the bill-broking firm, at a time when such employment for a woman was entirely unknown. 

The name of the firm was changed to A.M. Alexander and she took all the profits.

an image of Silkwomen

Isabel Bally-Otes-Frowyck

Twice Lady Mayoress and silkwoman

Twice Lady Mayoress, silkwoman with a career of over 50 years from about 1410 to her death in 1464. 

 

 

text which says Bulmer

Agnes Bulmer

Writer and poet.

 

Born in Lombard Street on 31 August 1775, the third daughter of Edward Collinson (d. 1809) and his wife, Elizabeth, née Ball, of Lombard Street, London. 

She was a bright girl who left school at fourteen, but continued to study throughout her lifetime. 

Deeply religious, she was an active member of the Church of England, as well as participating in Methodist society. 

 Agnes Bulmer’s publications include: Memoirs of Mrs Elizabeth Mortimer (1836), Scripture Histories (3 vols., 1837–8), and a long poem entitled Messiah’s Kingdom, in twelve books, published in 1833.

an image of Monica Geike Cobb

Monica Mary Geikie Cobb

Barrister

Born in Winchester. 

Monica became a student at University College, London, gaining the London University degrees of BA in philosophy in 1914, and LLB in 1921. 

The legal profession being opened to women by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (1919), which came into force on 23 December 1919, Monica became the second woman to join the Middle Temple (after Helena Normanton), on 2 January 1920. She kept the required 12 dining terms in its hall and in October 1921 passed her bar final examinations in the second class.

On 17 November 1922 Monica Cobb was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, alongside Helena Normanton, Ethel Bright Ashford, Beatrice Davy, and five other women. She was pupil to Theobald Mathew of 4 Paper Buildings. 

 

Image © National Portrait Gallery, London

an image of the suffragettes banner

Florence Feek

Suffragette

Worked as a Clerk in the Post Office Money Order Department at St Martin le Grand. 

She was arrested as a suffragette on 31 March 1909, along with other members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), when they tried to gain access to the House of Commons to meet with Prime Minister Asquith, and she was imprisoned for a month (which used up her annual leave). 

She retired from the Post Office at the age of 60, after having been employed there for more than 40 years. She died in an air raid in Plaistow.

a photo of City of London School for Girls

Ethel Strudwick

Headmistress

 

Born on 3 April 1880 at 14 Edith Villas, Fulham, the only child of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1937), artist, and his wife, Harriet Reed. 

Her father was one of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Ethel as a child met several of the group. 

In 1913 Strudwick was appointed headmistress of the City of London School for Girls in succession to Alice Blagrave. Almost immediately she was plunged into the problems of running a school in wartime. Her pupils were encouraged to make garments for the troops, work on the land, and raise money for the Red Cross. After the war she created a physics laboratory and introduced social work by the school in south London. 

Under her influence many of her pupils secured important posts in the new career opportunities beginning to open up for women. 

From 1931 to 1933 she was president of the Association of Headmistresses and in 1937 she became the first president of the British Federation of Business and Professional Women. 

She was a governor of four educational institutions and became, in 1948, a member of the council of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust. 

She was appointed OBE in 1936 (in Edward VIII’s only honours list) and advanced to CBE in 1948. She died at her home in Mortlake, Surrey, on 15 August 1954. A memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral.

a painting of Alice Barnham

Alice Barnham

Silkwoman and benefactor

Alice Barnham [née Bradbridge] (1523–1604) Silkwoman and benefactor. 

Born in Chichester.

She is now known for having commissioned one of the earliest family portraits in England, dated 1557, in which she appears alongside her two eldest sons (now held in the Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum). 

 

Elizabeth Caslon

Elizabeth Caslon

Typefounder

Elizabeth Caslon [née Cartlich] (1730–95) Typefounder. 

Born in Foster Lane on 31 May 1730. 

On 25 June 1751 she married William Caslon (1720–1778), typefounder, of Chiswell Street; they had two sons. 

When her husband died intestate, on 17 August 1778, Elizabeth and her sons each inherited one third share of the typefounding business, which she continued, trading as Elizabeth Caslon & Sons.

 She was a talented businesswoman. In 1785 the firm produced an extensive type specimen book on 64 leaves, dedicated to George III. Elizabeth was an active member of the Society of Typefounders, which she helped to establish in 1793. 

She died in London on 24 October 1795 from the effects of a paralytic stroke. The management of the Chiswell Street foundry was taken over by her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Caslon.

a newspaper cutting featuring Elizabeth Sanderson

Elizabeth Sanderson

Philanthropist and centenarian.

Born in Leadenhall Street on 9 June 1793.

Possibly because of the early loss of their mother in 1795, Elizabeth and her sister Mary were soon actively engaged in the life of the Quaker circle in which they were raised, working in the anti-slavery movement and visiting Newgate prison with Elizabeth Fry.

Elizabeth Sanderson was especially concerned with improving the conditions of women sentenced to transportation, and also campaigned against capital punishment for minor offences.

She died at Dynevor House, Richmond, on 31 October 1901, aged 108 years, 4 months, and 3 weeks, and was buried in the Quaker burial-ground at Wellington on 5 November.

an image of the Reuters Messenger

Reuters Messengers

Newspaper messengers were important for the trade and City's economy

Connection to the City: Supported Fleet Street newspaper industry

Female messengers for local newspaper companies were important for the industry’s success.

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

 

 

an image of Theatre seats

Laura Martha Honey

Actress

Actress. Said to have been born on 6 December 1816, the daughter of Mrs Young, an actress at Sadler’s Wells. 

In 1837 she undertook the management of the City of London Theatre (in Norton Folgate, 35/36 Bishopsgate), where she played Tom Tug in The Waterman, Myrtilla in Planché’s Riquet with the Tuft, and in 

The Spirit of the Rhine by Morris Barnett. In her last season she performed at the Haymarket and in the provinces, and returned to the City of London. 

‘She was a pleasing and graceful actress, particularly in breeches roles, and a delightful ballad singer, but her performances were practically confined to the lightest class of entertainment.’

a photograph of Margaret Gillies

Margaret Gillies

Artist

Painter. 

Born on 7 August 1803 in Throgmorton Street and baptised on 6 February 1804 at St Benet Fink, Threadneedle Street.

After the death of their mother in 1811 and as a result of their father’s precarious position as a corn merchant in London, the Gillies children were brought up by relatives in Scotland.

About 1819, Margaret and her elder sister Mary Gillies returned to their father’s house in London, both determined to earn a living as painter and writer respectively.

Margaret’s sitters—many of whom were writers, intellectuals, and social reformers—included Harriet Martineau, Jeremy Bentham, Leigh Hunt, Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth. 

 

Image © National Portrait Gallery, London

 

an image of a garden

Alicia Amherst/Lady Rockley

Gardener/Writer

Alicia Amherst [married name: Alicia Margaret Cecil, Lady Rockley] (1865–1941) Writer and garden historian. 

She received the Freedom of both the Worshipful Company of Gardeners and of the City of London after the publication in 1895 of her book A History of Gardening in England. This book ‘provided a starting point for all later British garden historians’.

Hester Biddle

Hester Biddle

Quaker Minister and writer

Hester Biddle Quaker minister and writer. 

Until 1666 she lived in the Old Exchange (Royal Exchange), but after the Great Fire she moved south of the river to Bermondsey where she became a Quaker in 1654, and thereafter became an active minister and writer. 

Hester’s public criticism of clergy, mayors and magistrates led her into trouble with the authorities, including being put on trial for preaching and being confined for a time to the Bridewell.

She died in the parish of St Sepulchre at the age of 67.

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry

Social reformer and philanthropist

Born on 21 May 1780 at Magdalen Street, Norwich, the fourth of twelve children, seven daughters and five sons, of John Gurney, a merchant and banker, and Catherine Bell.

Her parents were both descendants of old Quaker families.

 Despite her busy family life, Elizabeth Fry undertook work in the community and in 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister.

Early in 1813 she visited the women’s side of Newgate prison, where she several hundred female prisoners with their children, packed in a few crowded and poorly supervised rooms. She became a pioneer in her attempts to improve the situation of female prisoners. When she returned to Newgate in about December 1816, her first innovation was the establishment of a little school for the prisoners’ children.

After discussions with the prisoners and meetings with the prison authorities, Fry and her female collaborators introduced a system of classification of the prisoners, prison dress, constant supervision by a matron and monitors (chosen from among the prisoners), religious and elementary education, and paid employment.

The result was a remarkable transformation in the conduct especially of convicted prisoners (although the removal of alcohol and playing cards was not universally welcomed).

The work gained a more permanent basis in April 1817 with the creation of the Ladies’ Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, extended in 1821 into the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.

 

Image: © London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

 

Burdett-Coutts

Angela Burdett-Coutts

Philanthropist

Born on 21 April 1814 at 80 Piccadilly, London, the youngest of the six children.

The fame that Burdett-Coutts had achieved as a philanthropist was acknowledged when, on 19 June 1871, she was raised to the peerage in her own right as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield, Middlesex. 

Public recognition of her work in London came with the award of the Freedom of the City on 18 July 1872, the first woman to be awarded the Honorary Freedom. Several of the Livery Companies paid her a similar tribute: the Turners (1872), the Clothworkers  (1873), the Haberdashers  (1880) and the Coachmakers (1894).

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

Mary Wollstencraft

Mary Wollstencraft

Writer and advocate of the rights of women

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. 

‘Wollstonecraft is best known for ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), where she argued that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and proposes a social order founded on reason.

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

A founder of modern nursing

 

Nightingale’s lasting contribution has been her role in founding the modern nursing profession. 

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

a painting of Mary Donaldson

Dame Mary Donaldson

First female Alderman, Sheriff and Lord Mayor of the City of London

First female Alderman, Sheriff and Lord Mayor of the City of London.

 

© London Metropolitan Archives: City of London

About the Research

Building on Women: Work and Power, the City Corporation’s 2018 outdoor arts programme which commemorated the beginning of women’s enfranchisement with the 1918 Representation of the People Act, this discovery and research project seeks to explore and commemorate the role of women from the City’s past.

Two research reports are now freely available to download:

In her report, Virginia Rounding shines a light on how women have shaped different trades and industries in the Square Mile, while unearthing
the hidden histories of individuals who helped the communities to thrive.

In a second report, Janet Foster and Dr Jessamy Harvey have focused on the City Corporation’s art collections, as well as the City’s streetscape. By assessing how women are currently represented and commemorated across these areas, we are now able to better understand the role of women in the City’s past and how they are currently recognised.

In April, we will be publishing a new report exploring specific Black and Minority Ethnic communities from the Square Mile’s history.